I went to see A Christmas Carol as some persistent snow fluttered to the cottony white ground now stiffened by the cold. Inside the warmth of the small theatre space, the swirl of rich color, beautiful language, and masterful staging ushered in the Christmas season more poignantly than I imagined it would. In the foyer, I laid eyes on Matt for the first time in I don’t know how long, even though we are housemates, and smiled with him. The first season of his own theatre company was celebrating Christmas with a classic story, and I loved watching him show it.
As I took my seat in the hushed house, low lights came up on a minimal but rich wall of loosely joined wooden slats that allowed amber rays to seep through jagged cracks. A circle of Roman numerals implied a grand clock in the center of the expanse. As strains of Mozart’s “Requiem in D” began, gentle fog crept in and enveloped us. We passed the next two hours in the company of some of Nashville’s finest acting talents, all dressed in handsome, jeweled hues. The ease of their shifting bodies helped us forget the heavy weight this Dickensian story bears as they simply folded us into the story. Off we soared into the past, present, and future.
I lack the words to fully convey the deep sense of wonder I felt watching the carefully-handled play unfold on the stage. The same weepy feeling crept up in my throat when I attended the company’s previous performances of Our Town and Hello, Dolly! It is an honor to take part in a well-told story. And it is a privilege to see this theatre company thriving.
Matt knows that folks thought he was all shades of crazy (and maybe they still do?) when he quit his perfectly fine and steady job teaching art and directing plays and musicals at our alma mater in order to launch a brand new theatre company with his high school friend Jake Speck. Truth is, I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of the decision either. Practicality can often rule cruelly and wield its power over us dreamers. Matt has been a lofty dreamer, though — a stubborn believer in what seems like impossibility — and he has been that way since I can remember. And I can remember quite a bit.
Oh, the creative escapades we two concocted as adolescent, artsy nerds in school! We can still become breathless with laughter at the shenanigans, the discrepancies between what we dreamt possible in our set design, costuming, and make-up sketches, and what was actually feasible given our resources and after-school time budget. Grand staircases were reduced to rickety, splintered plywood levels with toothpicky rails built from 2x2s. Intricately carved, beautifully adorned double doorways became sad, gaping openings that led to nowhere except a purple Gobo cast on a sagging scrim. What’s really charming is that we didn’t stop trying.
I don’t take lightly this good fortune of mine, being privy to the struggles, growths, and triumphs along a dear friend’s own creative path for so many years. God’s faithfulness and humor are spilled and sploshed all over this artist’s existence. I suppose that when I think about it, that’s what gives each little success of this fledgling theatre company its joy and significance. Bravely tuning in to God’s resolute call on his heart would eventually pull Matt into the fray of the stage performance world in California and New York, among other locales. Trudging through less-than-desirable vocational mud in sometimes maddening pursuit of his art, searching out the ultimate fulfillment of his yawning desire to create has been a trying, faith-building experience, to say the very least.
Being the observant housemate that I am, I have come to understand that the act of getting this great contraption of a theatre company off the ground and finally coaxing its landing gear into secure territory is a full-time job. And then there’s the responsibility to actually create beauty and meaning for greater Nashville’s viewing pleasure. I do know Matt’s heart for education and his methods of inspiration and immersion for the performer. As a director, he pours into his players with a broad depth of knowledge, employing an extensive vocabulary of his craft and a profound care for each facet of the play as a well-rounded whole. All aspects, carefully edited, converge to convey beauty. Matt defies convention with his original structural designs and deliberate color palettes. He creates costumes all of his own innovation, invention, and determination, many times constructed from Goodwill or antique store-finds. Watching the dress forms in the studio in our little house go from naked to lavishly dressed is always a surprising and awe-inspiring prospect.
His tenacity and drive have now brought him home to Nashville where he pours his love of story into one of his grandest dreams yet, Studio Tenn. It has been a slow grassroots start, to be sure. He and Jake do most of the major work themselves, tackling everything from PR to set and costume design, securing emergency wigs, designing web sites and posters, and forming alliances with like-minded folks. Along with a keen understanding of the business and how important respect and character are in this arena, Matt and Jake also carry in their hearts a profound desire to foster a spirit of education and of apprenticeship in the theatre community, a concept sometimes sadly missing in today’s arts culture.
“ ... With ample presence of gifted local talent, great theatre can share the stage in a city renowned for distinguished art. We envision combining the rich talent of Nashville with resources and connections from New York, L.A. and Chicago to create a Broadway-like experience right here in middle Tennessee and, furthermore, to offer unique, fun, proven methods of artistic instruction for the rising talent of our area.”
—from Studio Tenn’s vision statement
What next? A Christmas Carol had barely wrapped, the set pieces scarcely dismantled and the wardrobe pieces just carefully packed away, when day-long sessions and evening-long phone conversations commenced for their next show. Auditions will be held soon. Pieces of eventual costumes are being purchased from the Salvation Army and Tennessee Antique Mall, stockpiled for impending use in his tiny workspace. The melodic theme is being discussed and arranged, the musicians sought out. Studio Tenn’s upcoming performance, the third in their inaugural season, is The Glass Menagerie, that intimate heartache of a play by Tennessee Williams.
I lie in bed and hear the sewing machine running in the next room, hovering just above Matt’s low humming as he cuts, pins, stitches, and ponders. I imagine him silently moving through the paces of the narrative in his mind with wild, colorful schemes unfurling inside, always in pursuit of thorough disclosure of the human condition, our yearnings for glory. I can hardly wait to see how he crafts the pieces. All for the sake of story.
Evie Coates is a visual artist, art teacher, writer, gourmand, and junk-diver happily nestled in a dear neighborhood called Sylvan Park in Nashville, Tennessee. She delights in her red 1972 pick-up named Rosie and her 1960 Airstream trailer named Silvergirl. She wears Fryes on her feet and rhinestones in her hair. She is a lover of words, colors, birds, bourbon, raspberries, and steel guitar, many of which she writes about regularly at www.eviecoates.blogspot.com.